10 Surprising Facts About Alexander Hamilton

Getty Images // Chloe Effron
Getty Images // Chloe Effron

The Broadway musical Hamilton, like Alexander Hamilton himself, is an improbable success story. The critically-acclaimed show has renewed America’s interest in the country's most enigmatic founding father, who rose from obscurity to help build a new nation—one where he earned friends and enemies at just about every turn. To celebrate Hamilton's birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about him.

1. He probably lied about his age.

We know that Hamilton was born on January 11; what’s in doubt is the year in question. A native of Nevis (a small island in the Caribbean), Hamilton repeatedly said that he was born in 1757. But official Nevisian records cite 1755 as his birth year. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps his college search had something to do with it. According to Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the Broadway show, “While applying to Princeton, Hamilton may have decided to ‘correct’ his real age and shed a couple of years. Prodigies aren’t supposed to be overaged freshman.” 

2. He dabbled in poetry.

For a self-educated orphan (his father had abandoned his family when Hamilton was just a boy, and his mother died not long after), the future founding father wrote with unbelievable polish. On August 31, 1772, a hurricane ravaged St. Croix. Teenage Hamilton—who’d been working on the island as a clerk—described the disaster in a letter that was eventually published in The Royal Danish American Gazette, writing, “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place.” Little did Hamilton realize that these words were about to change his life forever. Blown away by the letter, readers quickly organized a scholarship fund for this talented young scribe. Before long, Alexander Hamilton found himself en route to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City.

Essay writing wasn’t his only literary passion. A number of poems have also been attributed to Hamilton. When a dear friend’s 2-year-old daughter passed away in 1774, he eulogized her in a touching tribute called “Poem on the Death of Elias Boudinot’s Child.” Another piece helped Hamilton win over his bride-to-be, Eliza Schuyler. As they courted, he sent a tender sonnet to the object of his affection. Eliza liked it so much that she placed the poem in a little bag and hung it around her neck.

3. The oldest unit in the United States Army is Hamilton's.

According to the Army Historical Foundation, “Battery D, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), traces its lineage to Hamilton’s Revolutionary War artillery company and is the oldest serving unit in the regular army.” On March 17, 1776, Hamilton was made captain of the group, and under his leadership, it saw action in several key moments—including the Battles of White Plains and Princeton. Impressed by the young man’s valor, George Washington made him an aide-de-camp (with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel) in 1777.

The father of our country couldn’t have picked a better man. In Hamilton, Washington found an energetic writer who was fluent in French and just so happened to share most of the General’s political views. Over the next few years, these assets made Hamilton an indispensable employee. Still, as time went by, he grew tired of essentially serving as a high-status clerk. In 1781, the aide-de-camp resigned from Washington’s inner circle. Afterward, Hamilton was put in charge of a new battalion and would pull off an impressive night attack against British forces at the decisive Battle of Yorktown.

4. He and Aaron Burr occasionally collaborated.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In postwar Manhattan, the future dueling partners were two of the Big Apple’s top lawyers. With the Revolution over, Burr and Hamilton paid their bills by practicing law. Clients gravitated toward the two decorated veterans from all directions, and Hamilton and Burr faced off in a number of legal showdowns. Every so often, though, they’d work together on the same criminal or civil case—including People v. Levi Weeks (1800), which is recognized as the first U.S. murder trial for which we have a formal record. 

In December 1799, a young woman named Gulielma Sands mysteriously vanished. Eleven days later, her body was found at the bottom of a Manhattan well. Fingers were immediately pointed at Levi Weeks. Both the carpenter and Sands lived in a boarding house owned by Sands's relatives, and Weeks had been courting her.

In the court of public opinion, Weeks was guilty. Luckily for the carpenter, though, his older brother had friends in high places. Ezra Weeks was an architect who had supervised the construction of Hamilton’s Convent Avenue estate. He’d also done business with the Burr-founded Manhattan Company—which, incidentally, owned the well where Sands’s body was found.

(Created as a means of providing “pure and wholesome” water to New Yorkers, Burr launched The Manhattan Company with some vocal support from Hamilton. The bill Burr would eventually put before the state legislature wasn't the same one that Hamilton saw, however; Burr's true intention for the company wasn't to provide water but to create a bank that would allow him to sway future elections. The bill passed and the bank was formed; in the 1950s, it merged with Chase Bank and today lives on as JPMorgan Chase & Co. The company owns the guns used in Burr and Hamilton's duel.)

Burr, Hamilton, and Brockholst Livingston (who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice) formed Levi Weeks’s defense team. In a two-day trial, they dismantled the state’s purely circumstantial case against their client, and the carpenter was found innocent. Eventually, Weeks moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where the accused murderer reinvented himself as an esteemed southern architect. 

5. Vermont found an ally in Hamilton.

When Vermont declared its independent statehood in 1777, it upset certain New York industrialists, who considered Vermont to be a part of their state. For decades, New York and New Hampshire both tried to claim the area. So, in 1764, His Majesty decreed that everything west of the Connecticut River (Vermont and the granite state’s current border) belonged to New York. 

There was just one problem: most Vermonters were former New Hampshirites. Upon assuming control, New York refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of land grants established there by New Hampshire transplants. Vermonters responded by taking up arms against their neighbors to the west. Local militias—including one called the Green Mountain Boys—repelled New York emigrants by force. 

Then along came the American Revolution. In 1777, Vermont petitioned the Continental Congress to acknowledge its sovereignty as a state. Thanks to opposition from New York’s delegates, however, this didn’t happen. For the next 14 years, Vermont—unable to join the Union on its own terms—existed as an independent republic.

After the war, Congress refused to acknowledge the swath as anything other than a large chunk of New York. Thoroughly disgruntled, some locals lobbied to have their mini-nation absorbed by Canada.

From Hamilton’s perspective, the prospect of a British-ruled Vermont threatened America’s security. In 1787, he was working as a New York state legislator. During his tenure, Hamilton presented a bill that would instruct New York’s Congressional representatives to recognize Vermont’s independence. This measure died in the State Senate, but, in the end, Hamilton was able to spearhead a settlement between New York and Vermont. With the empire state’s approval (and payment from Vermont to New York of $30,000), Vermont finally entered the Union in 1791.

6. It's believed that he authored most of the Federalist Papers.

Apart from his stint as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, this is the political achievement for which Hamilton is best known. Published between 1787 and 1788, the 85 Federalist Papers essays urged New York’s electorate to ratify the recently-proposed U.S. Constitution. The influential documents were written under the shared pseudonym Publius by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Since none of them used their real names, we can’t be certain about how many papers each man wrote. Still, general consensus credits Hamilton with 51, Madison with 29, and Jay with five.

7. The last letter that George Washington ever wrote was addressed to Hamilton.


Getty Images

Two days before he died, America’s first President sent a dispatch to his former aide and cabinet member. Hamilton had recently argued that “a regular Military Academy” ought to be established, and his old mentor praised the idea. In a 1799 letter that would be Washington’s last, the elder statesman told Hamilton that such a place would be “of primary importance to this country.”

8. He founded The New York Post.

Established by Hamilton in November 1801, the paper was originally known as The New York Evening Post. The founding father conceived his new publication as a megaphone for the anti-Jefferson Federalist Party—which he’d also created. Hamilton himself generated many of The Post’s early editorials. “He appoints a time when I may see him,” editor William Coleman explained, “… as soon as I see him, he begins in a deliberate manner to dictate and I to note down in shorthand; when he stops, my article is completed.”

9. His eldest son also died in a duel.

Then-Vice President Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. It was almost a case of deja vu: Three years earlier, another Hamilton had died under eerily similar circumstances. 

Like his father, Philip Hamilton was a bit quick-tempered. In 1801, the 19-year-old had a deadly run-in with George Eacker, a prominent Democratic-Republican lawyer. On July 4, Eacker delivered an Independence Day speech in which he not only denounced Alexander Hamilton, but asserted that the former Secretary of the Treasury would be willing to plot the violent overthrow of President Jefferson.

From then on, Philip harbored a passionate grudge against Eacker. Four months after the inflammatory address, the young Hamilton went to take in a show at New York’s Park Theater with his friend, Richard Price. Inside, they caught sight of Eacker. Bursting into his theater box, Hamilton and Price savagely heckled the attorney. Eacker—not wanting to disturb his fellow patrons—told them to meet him in the lobby, grumbling “It is too abominable to be publicly insulted by a set of damned rascals.”

“Who do you call damned rascals?” the teenagers shouted. A fistfight might have broken out right then and there, but Eacker diffused the situation by suggesting they all cool off at a nearby tavern. But the change in scenery did nothing to calm anyone involved: Later that night, the lawyer received a curt letter from Price challenging him to a duel. 

The ensuing Price-Eacker standoff was an uneventful affair, with both men failing to shoot their opponent. In the bloodless duel’s wake, Philip hoped that he might persuade Eacker to take back his insulting comments if he, too, apologized. Instead, Eacker flatly refused. Feeling that his honor had been intolerably attacked, Philip felt he had no choice but to issue a dueling challenge of his own—which the angry Jeffersonian accepted. 

Both combatants arrived at Weehawken on November 23. Each came brandishing a pistol provided by Alexander’s brother-in-law, John Baker Church. After the smoke cleared, Eacker would walk away unharmed—Philip would not. A bullet entered the young Hamilton above his right hip, tearing clear through to the left arm. Mortally wounded, Philip died the next day.

By all accounts, Alexander Hamilton was never the same man after his son’s untimely demise. When Burr and Hamilton met to settle their own score, they used the pistols from Philip’s duel.  

10. Theodore Roosevelt was a big fan.

Telescope Teddy was fascinated by all things Hamilton. In TR’s mind, this founding father stood tall as “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.” Moreover, Roosevelt saw in Hamilton “the touch of the heroic, the touch of the purple, the touch of the gallant.” Our 26th President even found time to study the man while sitting in the Oval Office. Roosevelt read 1906’s Alexander Hamilton, An Essay on The American Union by historian Fredrick Scott Oliver. Before long, he was praising the book to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Secretary of State Elihu Root, and Whitelaw Reid, America’s ambassador to the U.K.

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER